Being Dan

By Mike Eldon

Today, I immersed myself in Dan. I virtually became Dan, allowing his spirit and energy to enter me. I felt confident, creative, relentless.

In the morning, I hosted one of our meetings to plan the January exhibit of Dan’s art at the Watatu Gallery. Some who came were new to the phenomenon that was-that is-Dan. I was conscious of their trepidation, their uncertainty as to how to handle their participation. They were clearly overwhelmed by Dan’s talent and his prolific output, burdened too by the responsibility to show it at its best, while reflecting accurately the spirit of the man. There was the sadness too, the respect for a creative force cut down in its prime; and they were here in the house where he lived and produced…with his father. How to behave?

mike eldonOne woman wore a permanent frown. I felt her intensity, I understood how she was straining to absorb, to synthesize, but I wished her forehead would relax. Finally, I said, as gently as possible, “Try not to frown. Everything we are doing to remember Dan by, to celebrate his memory, we should enjoy doing, and although I want us to be ambitious, I am confident we’ll succeed.” She smiled weakly, grappling with her thoughts and emotions. I hoped she would learn to relax. I was moved by her anguish.

I often think about how Dan tackled whatever he did with confidence, even where, particularly where, others warned him he was biting off more than he could chew. That assumption of success is what made Dan, and carried others along with him, knowing they could join him in confounding the skeptics.

All this I tried to imply in what I said. I feel very much at home with all these creative artistic people, able to spark with them on their wave-length, share their sense of aesthetic, work with them to put together a wonderful event of which we, and of course Dan, can feel proud.

Out of the misery of his death comes this consequence, an opportunity for me to indulge and develop my own creativity. Our title for the exhibit is “The Show Goes On,” symbolizing the continuity of the vivid life reflected in the work we are exhibiting. Some were initially tentative about tampering with it, but it was clear to me that we would inevitably develop the art by bringing it together, just Dan did in his journals. I am sure he would not have wished us to feel inhibited, and I feel we are in harmony with Dan’s spirit in all that we are doing.

One of the ways this is happening is through the easy style in which we are all working together. I must say that I naturally strive for such an atmosphere in my life, as does Kathy, and it would be unduly modest to deny that this rubbed off on Dan, as it has on Amy. When Dan got going with a project, he always involved others, allowing each to show they had a valid contribution to make. No one remained a spectator; timidity gave way to boldness, encouraged by his guiding hand. (I only came to realize how much a part of Dan this was after he died, from the countless letters we received which paid tribute to this great inspirational quality of his.)

This is why I want the exhibit to courage unthreateningly those who come to view also to enjoy creating, whilst surrounded by his joyous jumble of art.We’ll have great strips of newsprint (as we did at the Ngong Hills memorial), on which artists and non-artists’ will express themselves, at least for a minute or two. I want nothing about this exhibit to be normal. After all, there was nothing normal about Dan: he defined his own rules, independent of the conventional.

This is not to say that he was abnormal, or an eccentric or a rebel. It’s only that he saw life through an original perspective, and dreamed of possibilities and opportunities which he had the confidence to pursue, in ways only others would describe as unorthodox. He simply did what came naturally to him, and it worked.

The Watatu event will embody Dan’s style: no neat, orderly rows of conventionally framed photographs, no warm sweet wine or stale soft crisps. No, I want the gallery to capture the spirit of Dan’s room, his studio, his depot. I see different areas spilling out Dan’s works, enriched by the paraphernalia which adorns his room, reflecting his vibrant, eclectic multi-cultural perspective. And all the good souls who are involved with me want just that.

mike and kidsSome time in the evening, now alone in the house, I wandered into Dan’s room. One of these days we want to take some pictures of it, so that people who had never picked their way through Dan’s debris while he was alive can get a feel for the fertility of his mind and the way he gathered his resources around him. Of course, the state of the room has changed. So many have visited what has now almost become a shrine. Others, not least me, have sorted through the endless layers.

I have spent many hours wilth the pictures and papers, the cameras and film, the crayons and pens, the swords and knives, the masks and hats, the coins and notes, the T-shirts and boots, the bullets and bones, the razor blades and batteries, the inks and paints, the medals and permits, the postcards and letters, the books and magazines, the buttons and beads, the ebony and ostrich feathers, the whistles and spears, the tapes and filters… Don’t ask me how we’ll be able to recreate the chaos (which to Dan formed a well organized, well-structured store-he knew exactly where everything was). For some reason, I felt that a prerequisite would be to complete the sorting.

So, that evening, I found myself relentlessly creating my order out of his. I spent several hours going through his desk drawers, conscious that we may wish to incorporate some of his furniture in the display at the gallery, and that there was no way we could bring along all its contents. The work was mundane. Prising out loose knife blades from among a mass of coins from England, America, Canada, Tanzania and elsewhere provided no mental stimulation per se. But as I picked at the blades and coins, or later as I dabbled among the regimental insignia, the felt-tip pens, the lettraset packs, the plastic moving eyes, my mind lifted to another level. I began to feel how Dan operated, bringing together conventional bits and pieces of material to create his dense, explosive art. He found dramatic ways of allowing different shapes and textures to live together, bringing new meaning as they met, sometimes besides each other, sometimes on top of each other. The bubbling pages of his journals, layers of hilarious surprises, grew from the raw material of his room, an infinite stock of infinite variety.

In a different way, I too enjoy filling blank pages: inspiration, as someone once said, is a blank piece of paper. But I only use a pen to fill the empty whiteness, and once my writing has reached the bottom of the page, that’s it. Similarly, when I take a photograph, although I am fully conscious of the artistry involved, the process stops there; the picture is the end product. For Dan though, the process of creation evolved gradually and cumulatively. The photographic print, often as not, was but the first stage. The image was then photocopied, sliced, twisted, colored, juxtaposed. Dan gave new meaning to “developing” photographs, inventing families and generations of derivatives which owed their independent lives to some initial conception.

As for his journals, I can see him now, turning finished pages, some new bric-a-brac in the other hand, looking for a suitable home on an already crowded, and nicely complete, spread. Yet, returning later to that page, you no longer remember that it had grown organically over time.

Dan was not at ease with straight lines. In his art as in his life, linearity played little part. As ideas occurred to him, as opportunities arose , he pursued them, or stored them in his physical and mental depots for future inspiration, integrating them with what already existed, strengthening the base.

Now here I am, mourning his loss, celebrating his memory, continuing to learn from his example. How shattered I am to have lost him, how fortunate to have been left with his rich heritage which has given rise to his and other glorious activities.

“It’s all very fine, putting so much energy into these projects,” some have told me, “but aren’t you simply postponing your grief?” I don’t think I am. They help me handle my grief and sadness, help me heal. I understood more about this process from my friend Mary Collis, a painter. Following the recent death of her father, she produced a series of paintings in honor of his memory: the emotions which inspired her to paint were, it seems, transformed by the painting process itself. So it is with me and my projects. They help me focus on the positive in ways that uplift me and others. I am proud of who my son was an of what he did, and I want as many peo0ple as possible to learn from his example. Not least me.

Mike Eldon wrote this several months after Dan’s death. It appeared in one of the annual yearbooks he prints and gives to friends as a holiday gift.